same as it never was

I nipped out this lunchtime to visit the Edinburgh Quilt Show. I spent quite a bit of time with the themed exhibitions, among which I saw several quilts, all of them nice variations on the same sampler design, made by students of Mandy Shaw.


This is how these quilts were described:


I confess I was rather puzzled by this. For starters, 2007 did not mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, but rather the bicentennial of the British government’s abolition of the slave trade. Slavery itself persisted in the British colonies until 1833, and was not abolished by the United States until 1865. And there were other anomalies to puzzle over as well. Here were quilts, made by British quilters, commemorating the moment when the British government decided to stop exchanging human beings as commodities. Yet these quilts were not about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade at all, but apparently told the story of Harriet Tubman, an African-American woman rightly famous for her political activities and work with the ante-bellum underground railroad. So the quilts did not actually commemorate Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, but were rather about a moment and a culture four thousand miles and half a century away.

I noticed (and was disappointed by) a similar sort of historical mis-quilting, in the TAFF quilt exhibited in various venues last year:


This quilt is an amazing — and deeply moving — collaborative achievement. It carefully and beautifully documents the geography of the Atlantic Triangle and the conditions on board slave ships; explores several different ways of claiming and representing historical African identites, and accurately illustrates the activities of black and white British abolitionists. But while a block on the left meticuloulsly reproduces the text of the 1807 act to abolish the slave trade, an identificatory block on the right wrongly associates the quilt with the “200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery”

The TAFF quilt simply made one factual error — an error which I have noticed being corrected in depictions of the quilt in recent magazines. But the mis-quilting in the “Harriet Tubman” quilts I saw today was more worrying, and, I have to say, more pernicious as well. For it is not simply a case of a minor historical inacuracy — an inaccuracy that one might excuse as understandable given the (often confusing) ways that the bicentennial was ‘officially’ celebrated in Britain last year. Rather, associating Harriet Tubman with the abolition of the slave trade is incredibly misleading, and in fact performs a certain harm to the memory of both the important African-American woman and the long-overdue British parliamentary act. It is the same kind of wrongful harm that, in a recent edition, illustrates the narrative of Harriet Jacobs with the portrait of Phillis Wheatley — two completely different, completely unrelated, African-American women writers.


In illustrating the work of one woman with the portrait of another, this bizarre book cover has the effect of suggesting that black women writers are somehow interchangeable, that they all, in essence, tell the same story — the terrible story of Slavery with a capital S. But while they may both be women of colour, a hundred years, very different experiences of slavery, and a whole aesthetic world divides Wheatley from Jacobs, just as the Atlantic ocean and a completely different abolitionist culture divides Harriet Tubman from the British parliamentary act of 1807.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of Mandy Shaw and her students in making these quilts. But, particularly at this moment when the associations of quilts and slavery are so contested and so controversial**, one really has to ask oneself what political work these quilts are doing. It is simply not OK to remember one thing (the abolition of the slave trade) while actually remembering another (Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad). Rather than forming (as I’m sure they were intended to do) a thoughtful and powerful act of historical commemoration, these quilts are actually disguising history, falsely covering it over, neatly wrapping it up rather than bringing it to light. And in doing so, they add another quiet, but nonetheless significant act of falsificatory violence to slavery’s numerous, different, and particular violent histories. The textile practices of a specific cultural and historical moment are here wrongly appropriated in the service of the wrong story. At least the TAFF quilt was trying to tell it like it is. But these quilts — in a manner dangerously sentimental as well as historically misleading — do a disservice to contemporary quilting practice by telling it like it never was.

** For a careful and thorough account of the racial politics of contemporary quilt scholarship, see Shelly Zegart’s article “Myth and Methodology,” in Selvedge (January 2008).